Divine Interlude: How to Be a Monk for a Week


How many times have you gone on a much-needed vacation, only to return home more exhausted than before? If you’ve been thinking that you need a different sort of getaway this year, one that not only changes your venue, but potentially your perspective as well, the seclusion and serenity of a spiritual retreat can provide a refreshing – and healing – alternative.

There are currently more than 2,000 monasteries, abbeys and other retreat centers throughout the U.S. and Canada. Although most are linked to a religious order, retreatants need not be of that particular faith – or even particularly religious – to participate. The two most popular types of retreats are:

• Personal: time on your own with voluntary participation in the daily rituals of prayer services, work life or the full monastic schedule, usually with access to a spiritual guide or mentor.
• Thematic: group sessions that often include speakers, workshops and discussion centered around a theme or activity, such as creative writing, mindful eating or meditation.

Although a few – especially international – monasteries only allow men or married couples, most American and Canadian retreat centers are open to every gender, marital status, nationality and religious belief not exclusive to their own.

Great Vow Zen Monastery

Zen + the art of mind maintenance. I chose the Great Vow Zen Monastery for my own personal retreat, located near Oregon’s lush Columbia River Basin with stunning views of Mount St. Helens en route. Led by ordained Zen teachers Hogen Bays and Jan Chozen Bays Roshi, the former elementary-school-turned-monastery adheres to a 2500-year-old traditional Buddhist schedule, which I quickly folded into.

The day began at 3:50 a.m. with the clanging of a handheld school bell; the monks and I assembled shortly thereafter in the zendo (meditation room) for a pre-dawn Zazen meditation session. The remainder of the day was a succession of formal (predominantly silent) meals, liturgy, temple cleaning, rest periods, work practice/workshop activities and an evening Zazen, followed by “lights out” at 10 p.m.

I predicted the grounds to be beautiful and the schedule challenging – and I was right on both counts. However, I didn’t anticipate that the resident monks would be so warm and helpful – even humorous at times – and that among their comforting presence and powerful meditative energies, I would finally be able to quiet my own overactive mind for the very first time.

What to expect. Retreat accommodations range from dormitory-like quarters to spartan singles with shared bathrooms, from around $25 to $100 per night (or more for a specific retreat and materials), usually presented in the form of a donation. In addition, retreatants will often be asked to make up their own beds – or change the linens for the next arriving guest.

Most retreat centers offer self-serve coffee and tea service. Three meals a day are standard, most likely to be healthy, vegetarian fare prepared with produce grown on-site. However, some may only offer food service during select retreats. It is always wise to discuss meal specifics before you go, especially if you have special food requests or allergies.

No electronic devices, TVs, radios or cell phones. Most centers have an office phone that can be offered as an emergency contact number.

Expect to have a calming, uplifting experience, but don’t expect miracles – especially on your first retreat. “The most important item people can bring with them is an open mind,” notes Hogen Bays. “Many people arrive expecting the environment to deliver the experience for them; sure, the retreat can be the catalyst, but real change and true enlightenment can only come from within.”

Find a retreat near you. The following sites offer listings and descriptions for retreat centers in the U.S., UK and Canada, some with location, cost, activity and gender-specific search tools.

Find the Divine: findthedivine.com

Retreat Finder: retreatfinder.com

Retreats Association UK: retreats.org.uk/links.php

eXpand retreats: expandretreats.com

Great Vow Zendo


All photos (unless otherwise noted): © Tiffany Owens | ModernDayNomads.com. May not be reproduced without permission.

Note: This article originally appeared on MSNBC.com | Take3 Magazine

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